South Jersey's First Proton Therapy Center Previews New Facility
The Penn Medicine | Virtua Health facility will provide a leading-edge form of cancer treatment. It’s among fewer than 50 nationwide.
October 14, 2022 - Two renowned health systems are bringing the most advanced form of radiation treatment to cancer patients in South Jersey, with the creation of the Penn Medicine | Virtua Health Proton Therapy Center in Voorhees, N.J.
The $45 million facility will be the first proton therapy center in South Jersey and among fewer than 50 in the United States. This suburban site, on the Virtua Voorhees Hospital campus, will provide local patients the added convenience of being nearer to home and loved ones while undergoing treatment and recovery.
The technology can seem like science fiction – involving the acceleration of sub-atomic, cancer-eliminating particles to about 450 million miles per hour. In reality, though, this leading-edge facility will bring a new pathway to care to people with cancer from across the region.
Penn Medicine and Virtua Health this week hosted a festive preview celebration, including behind-the-scenes tours of the massive and complex machinery, and heartfelt remarks from a local cancer survivor. A colorful lighting ceremony illuminated the two-story structure in vibrant hues, and was visible from nearby N.J. Route 73.
“Proton therapy offers new hope for people with complex or recurring cancers, and we are thrilled to bring this world-class care to our community,” said Stephanie Fendrick, FACHE, MBA, executive vice president and chief strategy officer at Virtua Health, southern New Jersey’s largest health system.
The 8,600-square-foot center, which started construction in June 2020, is expected to open to patients by early 2023. Prospective patients and their doctors can begin scheduling consultation appointments by calling 888-847-8823.
“This is also a major milestone in Virtua’s longtime partnership with Penn Medicine, which is a global leader in proton therapy,” added Fendrick, who helped bring the new facility to fruition. Penn is a pioneer in the field, starting with the 2010 opening of its Roberts Proton Therapy Center in Philadelphia. The Voorhees facility features the newest, most advanced proton therapy system in the world, the ProBeam 360° by Varian.
“We’re very proud to partner with Virtua to deliver this revolutionary treatment to South Jersey residents,” said James Metz, MD, chair of Radiation Oncology at Penn Medicine. “As an international leader in cancer care, we’ve trained more than 70% of the clinicians using proton therapy around the world.”A Patient’s Perspective
Voorhees resident Deb Harris – who received the life-saving treatment for a brain tumor in 2017 at the Roberts Proton Therapy Center – is thrilled to have the new facility in her own community.
“It brings me joy to know that, starting very soon, my South Jersey neighbors will have an easier, more accessible option should they need similar care,” said Harris, who has been cancer-free for five years. “When you’re facing cancer, anything that makes life easier and simpler is a blessing.”
Since her recovery, Harris has gone skydiving, visited several European cities, and made special memories with her family and friends. “Proton therapy made it all possible,” said the retired telecommunications executive and math professor.Advantages of Proton Therapy
Proton therapy is a painless, noninvasive treatment that uses a beam of high-energy protons to get rid of cancer cells.
Protons are positively charged particles within an atom. Doctors finely control the proton beam, so it precisely hits the cancer and then stops, preventing radiation from moving through healthy tissue and surrounding organs.
This advanced form of radiation therapy offers new potential for recovery, survival, and improved quality of life. In particular, it’s an important treatment option for tumors located near highly sensitive areas (such as the spinal cord, heart, and brain) or for those that cannot be fully removed by surgery.
The treatment can be used for many cancer types, including brain, spine, gastrointestinal (anal, colon, esophageal, liver, pancreatic, rectal), lung, breast, gynecologic (cervical), kidney, lymphoma, mesothelioma, oropharyngeal, and prostate.About the Facility
The new Proton Therapy Center is connected to the existing Penn Medicine | Virtua Health Radiation Oncology suite, and part of the comprehensive Penn Medicine | Virtua Health Cancer Program.
The facility will offer a full range of services, including evaluation, treatment, and access to clinical trials, some involving proton therapy.
A 90-ton device called a cyclotron is the primary component in the delivery of proton therapy. The cyclotron accelerates protons to two-thirds the speed of light – about 450 million miles per hour.
“That creates the high energy needed to deliver targeted radiation to the desired depth in the body,” explained Dr. Metz.
At that speed, protons travel from the cyclotron to the patient in about 60 nanoseconds – or 60 billionths of a second!
As part of this process, the cyclotron’s superconducting coils are cooled to 452 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit.
Patients don’t see the cyclotron, as it sits in an underground vault, enclosed by concrete walls that are eight to 21 feet thick.
Another impressive piece of technology, the 90-ton gantry, is also hidden behind the treatment room’s walls. This massive cylinder-shaped structure rotates 360 degrees to direct the proton beam at the best angles to hit the tumor.
In addition to its single treatment room, the center contains a high-tech observation room for technicians to carefully monitor patients throughout the treatment. The average patient treatment visit will take about 30 minutes from arrival to departure.
“Our patients will find a warm, welcoming environment, where they can connect with their care team, receive treatment, and quickly return to their lives and their loved ones,” Fendrick said. The program expects to serve 100 patients in its first year, and can treat 200-plus individuals annually. About 28 staff members will work at the center, including nine new positions.Partners in Caring for the Community
Penn Medicine and Virtua Health began their collaboration in 2015, providing South Jersey residents with access to comprehensive care closer to home from teams of Penn and Virtua clinicians. The partnership includes both cancer and neuroscience services.
The new Proton Therapy Center is part of the Penn Medicine | Virtua Health Cancer Program, which provides a full range of state-of-the-art cancer services. The program has locations in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester counties. Beyond the Voorhees location, the partnership includes the Virtua Samson Cancer Center in Moorestown and a center within the Virtua Health & Wellness Center – Washington Township.
“At the core of our partnership with Virtua is our commitment to making it convenient for patients to get the very best care, as close to their homes as possible,” said Kevin B. Mahoney, CEO of the University of Pennsylvania Health System. “When patients need advanced care, we’re focused on giving them options that keep them near their families and friends. Less time traveling means more time focusing on recovery and doing the things that are most important to them and their loved ones.”
“Together, Penn and Virtua have already made a huge impact on cancer care, and the new Proton Therapy Center will provide even greater access to world-class care,” said Virtua President and CEO Dennis W. Pullin, FACHE. “It’s an incredible source of hope to have right here in South Jersey.” For more information, visit www.virtua.org/pennproton or call 888-847-8823.
More Fascinating Facts & Figures
- The Proton Therapy Center required 300 truckloads of concrete – which is more than 3,000 cubic yards. That’s enough concrete to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool!
- The 10-foot-wide, drum-shaped cyclotron weighs 90 tons – as much as four city buses or 55 mid-size cars. The cylinder-shaped gantry also weighs 90 tons.
- The cyclotron inside the Roberts Proton Therapy Center in Philadelphia weighs 220 tons – more than twice the weight of the cyclotron in Voorhees. Much like the home computer or mobile phone, many products become smaller as the technology evolves.
- The cyclotron and gantry travelled 4,000 miles by ship, from Germany to the port in Newark, N.J.
- The special tractor-trailer that delivered the cyclotron from Newark to Virtua Voorhees Hospital was 101 feet long.
- The tractor-trailer, shipping container, and cyclotron together weighed more than 300,000 lbs. (150 tons).
- The construction crane that placed the cyclotron and gantry within the building is massive. It weighs 300 tons and can lift up to 600 tons.
- Patients don’t see the cyclotron, as it sits in an underground vault enclosed by 35-foot-tall concrete walls. Most of the gantry is also hidden from view.
- The roof above the cyclotron and gantry had temporary “caps” to allow the large equipment to be craned into place. The permanent roof was installed after the equipment was craned in.